Laurie Halse Anderson is most well known for her debut YA novel, Speak. Published in 1999, at a time when sexual assault, the focus of the central narrative, was truly beginning to become a part of the social consciousness, Speak is still considered one of the best YA novels of its time, and has even been incorporated into high school curricula all over the country. In the year of Speaks‘s 15th anniversary. Anderson is releasing her fifth, and perhaps most personal, YA novel yet, The Impossible Knife of Memory, which approaches the question many young people encounter when their parents go into active military duty: What happens when they come home?
The Impossible Knife of Memory is in stores now, and Anderson sat down with EW to talk about her own experience with veterans, Secondary PTSD, and finally writing a love story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Laurie, your book tour begins this week, and The Impossible Knife of Memory releases today. Are you feeling ready?
LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: It’s very much like being pregnant. You know that the baby is definitely coming and everyone who loves you is very supportive, but you have to wait until it’s out into the world, you know? Actually, I guess it’s not really like having a baby; only if your baby then becomes 25 the next day [laughs].
This “baby” is a very personal one for you. What made you want to write this story about veterans and PTSD right now?
I have a nephew who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when I watched him have to adjust back to civilian life when he came home in 2011, it caused me to reflect on my own experience with a veteran who, of course, is my dad. My dad had to leave high school at the end of his senior year and he wound up, near the end of World War II, with the troops in the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. He was a country boy. He was a baby — like most of our soldiers are, so young. What he saw and experienced there haunts him to this day. He came back home and just buckled up all of his experiences and tried to get on with life. We didn’t even have a phrase then for PTSD.
What wound up happening is by the time I got to middle school, he wasn’t coping well. He became deeply alcoholic, he lost his job, we lost our home. I love my dad dearly, and to watch him go through that — it was so confusing. I think the real motivation for me was remembering how confused I was as a teenager that my dad, who was a totally awesome guy, could be so awful sometimes.
Hayley really comes out guns blazing as far as the introduction of her character to the reader. Does she have a basis in your own reality?
I connected her a lot with myself, just her “fists-up” attitude. I knew my parents loved me, but we didn’t talk about things, which made it hard. I really felt all the time like the world was on the verge of hurting me, and that’s who Hayley is. There’s a definition that’s begun to make the circles in terms of mental health providers now, which is Secondary PTSD. We’re seeing this sadly transmitted within the families of vets; their beloved and their children are sometimes showing their own hyper-awareness, hyper vigilant behaviors. There’s a piece of me there.
There seems to be an awful lot of adults who are reading YA right now, and I think part of that is, when [an adult reader] reads a story with a younger protagonist that reflects their experience, that gives [them] a lot to work on, on a deeply subconscious level. I was thinking about all those teens and all those former teens that have been working on this for a while and I’m hoping that this story will touch them.
The difference between “forgetting” and “not remembering” is touched on a lot throughout the story for both Hayley and her father. Why did you feel that was an important distinction to make for readers?
I had a great childhood, so when things fell apart for my family, it actually became incredibly painful to remember those great days. I can remember actively praying not to remember them. Because when I would think of how lovely it had been, it made the pain of that present moment almost unbearable. I wanted to show both Hayley and her dad struggling with different kinds of memories. At the end, they just had to find each other as a parent and child and start facing up to, you know, really bad things have happened, but we have to talk about them and we have to deal with them so we can start moving into the future.
This novel is a little different than your other YAs, because amidst all the scary things in Hayley’s life, she’s also falling in love. What made you want to include a sweet character like Finn and create this love story for Hayley?
Because I wanted to write a love story and I never had, and love is awesome! Hayley’s journey and the journey of all adolescents is, in your teens, you start moving away from your family of origin because you’re preparing to go out into the world, and that’s part of why your friendship circles become so important. And that’s why we fall in love. When your family is doing great, then that is a fantastic experience. When your family is not doing great, then those relationships take on even more significance and weight because you are so hungry for attention and validation and love.
How do you go about creating such honest adolescent characters and relationships? Does that come from personal experience with teenagers?
That’s such an interesting thing. I’ve known my husband since I was 3. This is not an exaggeration; he seriously walked me home from kindergarten. So having a very romantic guy who will also challenge me the way that Finn challenges Hayley is a pretty strong echo of my own relationship. But there’s also this element of writing that I can’t even describe. There’s magic. Sometimes it’s important to do your research, and sometimes you just throw your research in the fire and sit quietly until you can hear the voices. You know how sometimes you hear a chord played on an organ and you can feel it vibrating in your bones? Sometimes when I’m writing, I can feel my bones vibrating because I’ll have a thought or I’ll have a character’s voice in my head, and that’s when I know I’m on the right track.
You say yourself in the last chapter of the novel that this ending isn’t exactly a “happily ever after.” It’s complicated. What’s the challenge as an author to not tie everything up so nicely? What’s the benefit to the reader?
This is my one beef with Hollywood: It’s great for movie sales, but they’ve created this fiction for us that, when you have a hard thing in your life, it’s going to get fixed and then Your life will be awesome! Forever! Obviously I have a lot of adult readers now, but I feel like my responsibility is to my teen readers, because they’re still figuring the world out. Too many of them have watched movies and television shows in which everything gets wrapped up in a bow in the end, and then when that doesn’t happen in their own life, they get super confused or beat up on themselves. So all of my YA novels have ended in a not fully resolved way, and I do that deliberately because I want to show readers that that’s the way life works. It also leaves the character’s situation a little bit alive in the head of the readers. And I kind of like that. If I can write a book that will help the world make a little more sense to a teen, then that’s why I was put on the planet.
The Impossible Knife of Memory is available now.